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Sturgeon’s Resignation Gives Scotland a Chance to End the Political Poison

Picture of Jim Gallagher

Jim Gallagher

A queue of people see opportunities in Nicola Sturgeon’s departure. Rather too many nationalist politicians line up as candidates to replace her. Her political opponents see space opening up for them. The real opportunity however comes not from her departure but its underlying cause. Scottish politics, locked in the endless Groundhog Day of Yes or No, may be ready to move on. If the SNP do not take the chance to define where to, others will.

The First Minister’s departure is a generational shift in Scottish nationalist politics. The trio of Salmond, Sturgeon and Swinney dominated the Scottish political scene since 2007. They had a long term project.  Support devolution in 1999 as a stepping stone, and then run the Scottish government to get a referendum and so a separate Scottish state.

A quarter of a century on, that project has ground to a halt, because of intransigence: not, as Sturgeon would have it, of Westminster – but of the voters. They remain firmly Scottish, but unconvinced about separate statehood to anything like the extent needed to make it happen. 

The trio’s project has come to an end, and only one is left. John Swinney, the consummate political middle manager, may be the SNP’s kingmaker, but will not wear the crown. Sturgeon’s successor will start from a different place from her generation. Devolution is the only political world they have known.

Nevertheless, her resignation speech offers some clues to what might lie ahead. Inevitably it was self-serving. Anyone leaving the top of politics after 15 years will indeed be worn out, and want to justify herself as best she can, not offer a dispassionate audit of her successes and failures. Nevertheless two admissions stand out.

First acknowledging her de facto referendum plan was dead in the water. She knew could only impose it on an unwilling party, as her lieutenants were gearing up to do; everyone else could see it was hopeless. That is as close as she will come to admitting her nationalist generation has failed.

Her second admission was also interesting. Accepting she was a divisive figure, she called for depolarising Scottish politics. This will have raised a hollow laugh from many,  like those opponents of her gender recognition policy recently subjected to her unpleasant, ill-judged rhetoric. Perhaps she was just at the end of her political tether, but she and her colleagues have polarised Scottish public life on a binary constitutional question for decades.  

So her departure offers an opportunity to reboot Scottish political debate, not just getting rid of its poisonous tone, but changing its content. It begins with the question many thoughtful nationalists are now asking: where does nationalism go now the project of the 1990’s is over? That is the strategic choice the SNP face. More of the same will get them nowhere. And that is the underlying reason for Sturgeon’s departure: after 15 years, more of the same was all she had to offer.

No one can expect deeply committed nationalists to abandon independence. But in truth their vision of a separate Scottish state remains the dream of a minority.  It has never really captured the Scottish public. They may remain resolutely Scottish. But most, including many who say they support independence, are also committed to cooperation and sharing with the rest of Britain. Unless and until that changes, more of the constitutional same, unceasing campaigning and manoeuvring for a referendum, will succeed only in polarising Scottish political life more.

The SNP has however always had two aims: promoting independence, and the interests of Scotland. Over the last 15 years, the latter has taken a woeful second place. Scotland has had a government culture which favours announcement over achievement, and campaigning over change. The results are tangible: a Scottish economy falling behind even the faltering UK; an underfunded health service struggling to cope even as Scots’ life expectancy decreases; and a truly scandalous list of policy failures, with more in the pipeline.  More of the constitutional same will deliver only more of that. The voters are starting to notice.

Some in the wider nationalist movement understand this. Realising independence is at best a decade or more away, they ask what can be done to change Scotland for the better now. If the leadership of the new nationalist generation see this, opportunities open up. 

Britain is changing. Even the present government talks about cooperation, and Keir Starmer has radical plans for turning Britain into a much more decentralised state with a markedly different constitution and greater autonomy for Scotland. Much of what nationalist voters want, especially on the social and economic issues which drive so much of their dissatisfaction, can be delivered without a separate state.

As so often happens, a political party can lag behind public opinion. The nationalist movement has focussed for a generation on seizing sovereignty soon. Going instead with the grain of where Scottish opinion is today and focussing on improving Scotland in the here and now, cooperating with the UK as need be, would need a leadership with vision and courage. After decades of dictatorial control, the SNP may be incapable of so radical a change. As the Tory party found, the leader that suits the members won’t be the one the country wants or needs.

Politics however is ruthless. The more the voters see the choice is not how Scottish they are but who can best run the country (as the polls are beginning to suggest) the greater the risk to SNP hegemony. Last week was the end of an SNP political generation and the petering out of a nationalist project. Sturgeon’s dream is dying, and a new one is coming to birth. But it may not be her party which brings it into the world. 

This article was originally published by the Times, you can access it here.

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